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High Schooler Named Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar for His Venus Flytrap Project w/ Plant SpikerBox

regeneron science talent search scholar venus flytrap

What’s the effect of our warming climate on Venus flytrap, a carnivorous, bloodthirsty (or shall we say fly-thirsty?) yet vulnerable plant? And how can we help preserve this amazing species? These questions were asked by 18-year-old Mulin Huan from Princeton High School in New Jersey, whose research project made it to top 300 high school seniors in this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search.

To examine the effect of temperature on the plant, Mulin measured the amplitudes of action potentials in 30 Venus Flytrap individuals using our Plant SpikerBox. A 5°C enviroment temperature makes for significantly lower amplitudes than the control 30°C and regular 40°C environments, his study shows. However, as the amplitudes decrease in the harsher environment, the plant’s maximum memory time between two hair stimuli that trigger its trap to close–goes up. That is, the plant tends to “remember” better!

venus flytrap action potentials amplitude
The average relative value of Venus’s action potentials
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Taiwanese Student Organizes Outreach

Neuroscience has a way of inspiring people from all walks of life. After all, we all have brains, no matter where we come from! This story comes to us from Taiwan, where Chiao-chi,Chou studies, a 21-year-old student and interactive installation artist in the Department of Communications Design of Shih Chien University. Chiao-chi discovered our products earlier this year, and they inspired her to create her own projects based on our Plant SpikerBox. She contacted us with a proposal to lead a workshop in a neighboring town in early November, teaching primary school children about the science of plant motion.

Chiao-chi grew up in an out-of-the-way village in central Taiwan, where her parents did plant research in the mountains. The educational resources there were relatively scarce, and when she found out about Backyard Brains, she immediately knew it was something she would’ve loved as a child: “Maybe I can go back to my elementary school to hold a workshop for bringing new knowledge to other children, like Backyard Brains bringing to me,” she thought, and started work on her project. “It is very meaningful for me to have this opportunity to bring educational resources home.”

Our Plant SpikerBox is one of the more interesting aspects of our collection, as the organism it works on doesn’t actually have a brain, but some plants move in response to stimulus the way that our bodies do. For her research, Chiao-chi expanded on the open-source nature of our design, “intend[ing] to extend the possibilities of the Plant SpikerBox. [What if] it allowed us to feel the perceptions of plant? If plant had the consciousness and how will we to perceive it? With setting various degree of bioelectrical potential patching on arm to simulate the different magnitude force press to the Mimosa, me and my partner would like to invite people to think the above questions.” Chiao-chi and her partner successfully designed, cut, and assembled their project, pictured below.

The models they created involved rock-cut wood that was assembled into two separate stereo models: one shaped like a human arm, and one like the stem of a plant, specifically the Sensitive Mimosa, both hinged at joint to mimic each other’s shape. “The arm model is controlled by two syringes to help students understand the antagonist muscle,” Chiao-chi said. “[The] mimosa model also uses the hydraulic principle to express the turgor movement.” In terms of the hardware, she built a green circuit board, modified according to the open-source circuit diagram for the Plant SpikerBox, and set up an oscilloscope on the board to allow viewers to see the waveforms of human and plant action potentials, just like the Plant SpikerBox. As seen below, the modified board was hooked up to both a plant and a person via electrodes. 

As excited as she was about her research, she wanted something else: to share her knowledge with other students. So, she proposed a plan to the local primary school teacher. She would plan and facilitate a workshop with primary school students, training a number of assistants prior to the event, and helping the students to build their own devices and do the experiment. Her proposal was eagerly accepted, and after weeks of preparation and training, the workshop occurred in early November! Eleven students were mentored through the process of building and performing experiments with her models and her designs based on the modified Plant SpikerBox. A simplified version of the one pictured above was utilized in the workshop, and students volunteered to hook themselves up to a plant and feel what happens when they stimulated it.

The event was a hit! She writes: “The workshop ended satisfactorily yesterday and the children actively participated in the event. I explained to the students the structure of muscle and mimosa in the morning, which mentions the role and difference of vacuole in animal cells and plant cells. At the stage of making the toys, we saw that they used the remaining wood to decorate the finished product. After the lunch break, we explain the basic electrical concepts and lead students to measure the micro-energy of plants. I also let the children use the modified Plant SpikerBox. [T]he children expressed their surprise at the new knowledge and complained about the bad lunch (because I ordered a lot of greens lol). All in all, we had a great time. The lovely students are also looking forward to the next event!”

Chiao-chi,Chou is currently applying to the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience of National Central University to continue her studies. We wish her all the best in her future neuroscience endeavors, and eagerly look forward to hearing about any future workshops she brings to fruition. Welcome to the NeuroRevolution, Chiao-chi,Chou, it is wonderful to have you here!

Let us know if you’d like some guidance on leading a Backyard Brains workshop in your town! Email us at hello@backyardbrains.com and pitch us some ideas! We’re always looking to spread the NeuroRevolution!


Why are Neuroscientists Interested in… plants?

But Why Plants?

Recording an Action Potential from a Sensitive Mimosa!

With the Introduction of the The Plant SpikerBox, you can, for the first time ever, explore plant behavior and electrophysiology at home or in the classroom. But wait…. Plants? Why are neuroscientists interested in… plants…?

What has a brain?

When we work with young students, we often begin by asking them “What has a brain?” You get your typical responses, like “I have a brain,” “my dog,” “my cat,” etc. Then we ask them to clarify, how are they defining that category, and often we hear the response “They move on their own!” This is true, and the mechanics behind movement in brained creatures is a fundamental element of neuroscience and electrophysiology. But, there are living creatures without neurons that move: Plants!

Certainly you’ve seen a plant growing towards the sun, opening up its leaves or petals during the day for better exposure or pollination, but what’s more, there are some plants which exhibit rapid movements in response to direct stimulation. We created the Plant SpikerBox to record the electrical activity of these plants! Like the Neuron or Muscle SpikerBox, the Plant SpikerBox is a kit which is designed to make electrophysiology preps easy, so that students and teachers can focus on the science and experiments and not be bogged down by technical issues.

Disclaimer: Venus Flytraps do not have subterranean brains.

We proved this to be an idea worth spreading… Our 2017 TED Talk (Vancouver, BC) introduces viewers to this little-known world of plant electrophysiology. On the TED main stage, our CEO Greg Gage explains the principal elements of electrophysiology research, demonstrating that the electrical signals which control our own bodies are also present in plants! He proves this through a number of demonstrations, first by visualizing his heartbeat with our Heart and Brain SpikerShield, before moving onto the plants.

You can see the TED talk here!

To return specifically to the Plant SpikerBox, we encourage users to first find a Venus Flytrap, the plant that Darwin called “One of the most delightful plants in the world,” and investigate its eating behavior…

Venus Flytrap

In order to supplement its nutrition, Venus Flytraps capture and “eat” insects. In order to do so, they have to snap their traps shut quickly so their prey doesn’t escape. But how does the plant know when to snap its trap shut and how do the mechanics of this action work? 

Stimulating a Trigger Hair in a Venus Flytrap

Just like humans and animals, Venus Flytraps use electrical activity to move! Recording this signal with the Plant SpikerBox reveals that, like us, plants use “Action Potentials” to send movement signals! In the TED talk, Greg demonstrates how Venus Flytraps distinguish between false alarms and real prey. These are the amazing plants which inspired our interest in plant electrophysiology, we hope you find them as incredible as we do! Check out this experimental write-up to learn more!

Sensitive Mimosa

Anatomy of a Sensitive Mimosa and its Behaviors

Another interesting, rapidly moving plant is the Sensitive Mimosa, or Mimosa Pudica. Also known as the “shy,” or “bashful” plant, the Sensitive Mimosa will fold up its leaves and branches when it is touched or flicked. Using the Plant SpikerBox, you can experiment with the Sensitive Mimosa and discover how Action Potentials are responsible, again, for the dramatic movement response when you flick the stem of the plant. On the TED stage, Greg demonstrates these two kinds of behaviors, showing how the leaves fold up with soft touches, but entire branches fold when flicked. See the experiment here!

The Sensitive Mimosa has also received some attention lately following the announcement of the 2017 Novel Prizes! This year’s prize for Physiology or Medicine went to researchers who study circadian rhythms, or sleep cycles, which were originally discovered in the Sensitive Mimosa! For a great explanation, check out the Nobel Prize website!

Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communicator

But perhaps the most exciting experiment you can perform with your Plant SpikerBox is the Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communicator experiment. To demonstrate the ubiquitous nature of the action potential, Greg uses the Plant SpikerBox on the TED stage to capture a signal from a Venus Flytrap and send it into a Sensitive Mimosa…

Screencapture taken just a moment before Interspecies Plant-Plant-Communication is achieved…

The Plant SpikerBox and Plant Sciences have a lot of potentials (ha!). There are countless other experiments to be performed on these plants alone, but investigating other plants opens a world of opportunities. Perhaps the Trigger Plant or the Telegraph Plant are hiding electrical signals? Perform your own experiments! Let us know what you discover!

The Plant SpikerBox is available in our store, and the companion recording software, SpikeRecorder, is free to download.

What will you discover?